Kevin de León, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s November opponent, accused her last week of “gross misconduct” for waiting months to flag a sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh — seizing on the Supreme Court firestorm to jump-start his long-shot campaign.
Now de León is facing a backlash for his own handling of sexual harassment on his watch in the California legislature, which has been rocked by allegations of pervasive sexual misconduct.
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Allies of Feinstein in California’s Democratic establishment have rallied behind the state’s senior senator, repudiating de León’s critiques as acts of political opportunism from a trailing candidate looking to build his profile.
“She’s trustworthy, calm, deliberate, and gets all the facts before she acts. Because of that, she’s simply more credible than someone who puts out a press release first and figures out what’s happening on the back end,” Dana Williamson, a senior adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, said in a text message to POLITICO.
And on Capitol Hill, Democrats have largely coalesced behind their senior member on the Judiciary Committee as she takes GOP heat for her handling of Dr. Christine Ford’s letter alleging that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while both were in high school.
De León characterizes the episode as a “failure of leadership,” saying Feinstein should have done more as the Judiciary Committee’s senior Democrat to question Kavanaugh’s character during confirmation hearings.
And as the Kavanaugh hearings have unfolded, de León has assailed Feinstein for abiding by the Senate’s institutional norms and not taking a more combative stance, faulting her in particular for apologizing to Kavanaugh for disruptive protesters.
But de León, the former state Senate President Pro Tem, has seen his criticism reflected back at him from detractors who charge he was too slow to address sexual harassment allegations in Sacramento. Multiple lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature have lost their seats in recent months after being accused of misconduct, including a former state senator with whom de León once shared an apartment (the former state senator, Tony Mendoza, has denied any wrongdoing).
“He has experienced his own issues with handling sexual harassment claims in the Senate, and for that reason, I find it curious why he is the designated spokesperson on how Senator Feinstein has done her job,” Shawnda Westly, a longtime strategist for the California Democratic Party, said in an email to POLITICO.
De León has faced blistering criticism from a Republican Assemblywoman, Melissa Melendez, who has noted that her bills to protect legislative whistleblowers from retaliation repeatedly ran aground in the Senate when de León was leader or controlled the committee that halted the bills. It finally cleared the Senate last year, fortified by language that specifically mentioned sexual harassment.
“My problem with Kevin de León’s assertion that he is this great champion for women’s rights…is that he is the very reason this bill took 5 years to get passed,” Melendez said in an interview.
Adama Iwu, a California lobbyist and cofounder of the “We Said Enough” movement that spotlighted sexual abuse in Sacramento, said de León was “lacking in credibility” after having presided over a legislative body roiled by accusations of harassment and rooming with Mendoza.
“Things were handled badly and things were swept under the rug pretty consistently, and his Rules Committee” — the panel that handled complaints and is overseen by leadership — “had a role in that,” she said.
Conversations with legislative employees bolstered that assertion: among those who have worked under Sacramento’s capitol dome, there is a widespread sense that the mechanisms for uncovering misconduct tended to downplay allegations and failed to hold the powerful to account.
That began to change after the #MeToo movement engulfed Sacramento, de León and allies said. In a statement to POLITICO, de León defended the legislature’s response, which included de León introducing a resolution to expel Mendoza — who resigned before a vote — and lawmakers sending Gov Jerry Brown a bill establishing a new unit to investigate complaints of workplace misconduct, which Brown signed this week.
“Our California legislature confronted some hard truths head-on over the last year, and I will put our record in responding to that crisis and swiftly disciplining offenders, implementing victim protections and providing independent oversight against Congress’s any day,” de León said.
Feinstein, for her part, has vocally defended her handling of Ford’s letter about Kavanaugh since her office first received it in late July. Her fellow Democrats on the Judiciary panel were in the dark about the letter until a vague media report last week prompted Feinstein to share more details, sparking Republican howls over why she waited until a leak to the press before reporting the letter to the FBI.
The process “hasn’t been easy,” Feinstein told reporters earlier this week. “We wanted to do it the right way.”
She explained that her staff had initially looked into an outside investigation of Ford’s claim about Kavanaugh before learning that it would require notifying the Senate Rules Committee, “which would have erupted the whole thing” by violating the 51-year-old college professor’s desire for confidentiality.
But neither Feinstein nor her staff has explained in full why she did not route Ford’s letter to the FBI, even on a confidential basis, before the first press report of its existence. Even so, Feinstein’s fellow Democrats have mostly defended her decision to keep a close hold on Ford’s letter out of respect for the younger woman’s request for confidentiality.
“A foundational principle in dealing with survivors of assault is that they are the ones to decide when and how they come forward and how their stories are told to law enforcement,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview.
In December of last year, de León acknowledged some measure of responsibility for his own role in Sacramento as he spoke about the “humbling experience” of confronting what critics called a deeply-rooted culture of misconduct and a sweeping lack of accountability. “Have I also contributed or been complicit collectively as men to this type of dynamic?” he said in a press conference.
Christine Pelosi, who is the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and heads the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus, recalled that moment in saying many of the women who signed a much-publicized letter detailing sexual abuse in Sacramento “are seething” that de León attacked Feinstein and portrayed himself as a defender of women’s rights in the Kavanaugh hearing.
Recalling a moment in the de León press conference when he put his hand on his heart and said, ‘I wonder sometimes what I have done to contribute to the culture,’” Pelosi said, “This would be a really, really good time for him to do it. Instead of adding to the pain, he needs to disarm instead of politicizing the situation.”
State Sen. Holly Mitchell, who served on a committee that crafted a new system for handling sexual misconduct, praised de León for moving swiftly to respond to the “highly volatile, highly publicized MeToo movement.” That response included hiring outside law firms to investigate harassment allegations and launching a hotline for victims.
“I thought he stepped up and did the right thing at the right time,” Mitchell said.
Complaints that the Legislature failed alleged victims over the years are “largely true,” Mitchell conceded, but she argued that “the finger can be pointed at a number of people” for a problem that has stretched back decades.
Echoing that point, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson said de León acted appropriately when the time for action arrived.
“I think that the responsibility is on an entrenched culture of objectification of women that has existed since probably the beginning of time, and that has flourished unnecessarily throughout the halls of power,” Jackson said, but “the setting up of this joint committee to deal with sexual harassment, the investigations that were undertaken, occurred under [de León’s] watch.”
But plenty of detractors remain unconvinced.
“He really has no ground upon which to stand,” said Micha Star Liberty, an attorney who is handling lawsuits against the legislature — including a woman who alleges she was fired in retaliation for complaining about Mendoza. “It betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of what sexual assault victims go through and their process. He is using this, probably some of the worst moments in this woman’s life, as a political football to try and score points.”
Carla Marinucci contributed to this report.